The Grifters – Jim Thompson


No, there probably aren’t any ‘good’ characters in this novel. Roy Dillon is the nearest. He certainly isn’t evil. After a tough upbringing by an indifferent, even harsh mother, he has done well to get where he is in life. This has included criminal activity, but he plays the short con rather than the long and this wouldn’t seem to cause his victims any major harm. In most cases they would seem in fact to be victims of their own naivety which Roy merely exploits. And for one brief moment Roy might have achieved the morally sound life of an ordinary person, yet this just doesn’t work out.

But Roy is likeable. This isn’t the case with Lily, his mother, for factors I have already mentioned. Bobo Jusus demonstrates his brutality and thus we aren’t going to warm to him. Moira is more complex, at first, and I don’t want to spoil things too much by elaborating. Some of the happiest moments in the book do occur between her and Roy, sexually; however, this is not enough for her to attain an enduring status of goodness. At all.

Carol, on the other hand, must be a ‘good’ person. She is honest and hard-working and caring. But she is a victim too, horrendously as a child, and then later as an adult when working as a nurse. Roy would appear to have tender thoughts towards her – an act of goodness, perhaps – though these may be more to do with guilt. Finally, there is the minor character Perk who is ironically responsible for Roy seeing a way to another life, but Percival Kaggs is essentially a smartass.

The Grifters is not pulp fiction. As I have written previously, Thompson’s writing here is imbued with a knowing tone about the realities of the human condition, delivered at times through the kind of ‘quips’ I have already quoted in two previous references on this blog, and of course through the narrative arc of the story and all that happens. There are also moments, albeit brief, of poetic observation that capture a significant idea, signals it seems to me of deeper thought about the world we live in than the superficial preoccupations of a pulp narrative.

I have compared this with his other novella Savage Night – indeed, the only other one I have read with which to compare – so that is limited to a slight judgement on Thompson overall as a writer. I have referred to what I called a ‘redneck cynicism’ in at least one observation he makes in The Grifters, and in his reference to Carol and a concentration camp there does seem to be a ruthless element of the gratuitous over the meaningful. But these are snippets from the whole. And these are aspects of the effective storywriting, obviously. It is a very good story.

I have read about Thompson’s use of the unreliable narrator, and I have already challenged this is connection with Carl Bigelo from Savage Night. Although The Grifters is written in the third person [so perhaps this is the key stylistic caveat here!] I don’t see how Roy Dillon can ever be regarded as this when we are having his thinking presented to us. He is always shown as being totally straight about thoughts and feelings – including doubts – and what he sees. Indeed, returning to this question of any inherent goodness he as a character might possess: his candour in the reported admission of a complete lack of emotion for the soldiers he grifts on the train later in the story is crystal clear on both aspects of respectively reliable narration and any urge to being ‘good’.

My next Thompson read will be The Getaway. I am looking forward.


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